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There will never be another “Hoop Dreams,” nor is “Lenny Cooke” — a documentary that traces the rise and fall of its title subject, a New York City prodigy who was the number 1-ranked high school basketball player in the country in 2001 — trying to be. The no-frills first feature-length documentary from brothers Benny and Joshua Safdie is a less exhaustive, less sweeping sibling to Steve James’ critically acclaimed 1994 film, but it poses similar sociopolitical questions about race and class that continue to be very relevant today, while finding success on its own terms.
Cooke was considered one of the top NBA prospects while still in his junior year in high school, but he never quite saw his “rise,” because he was never drafted, and never played a single game in the NBA, which made his “fall” even more devastating.
His story isn’t an unfamiliar one. It’s all too common and, sadly, still current: young, fatherless Black kid from the “hood” with incredible athletic ability sees a professional sports career as his (and his family’s) ticket out of poverty. As Biggie Smalls said on his first album, “Ready to Die,” “Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” Cooke had the latter.
Many young, talented Black athletes are drafted in college (or high school, although the NBA ended that practice in 2006), sign professional play deals worth millions of dollars, and waste no time reveling in material excess, while also becoming credit cards to an entourage comprised of family, friends, and freeloaders, leading to an eventual financial collapse. What’s different about this story is that Cooke never quite made it to the next level, thanks to a series of poor decisions that eventually proved detrimental to his dream of playing in the NBA.
Cooke’s problem was that, unlike those who went before and after him, he always lacked discipline. He seemed to believe that his talent alone was enough, and all the mental and physical training that comes with developing oneself into the type of athlete that would become a top draft pick was inconsequential to him. With what he felt was an assured future professional career, Cooke’s high school education became nonessential to him. In the end, his arrogance got the best of him.
While the Safdies’ film is ultimately a portrait of a talented teenager being prepped for a future that doesn’t arrive, it perhaps unwittingly speaks to the need to elevate more models of success beyond athletics for Black boys who come from working class families and often feel that sports fame is still the best (and maybe only) option for their futures.
Of course, it doesn’t begin or end with elevating more models of success for Black boys. First, society must stop sending them the message that it overvalues their bodies and undervalues their minds. Along with that, systemic impediments still exist, and the troubles facing young Black men are a complex knot. Schools fail them, as do the high-crime neighborhoods where many of them grow up, where police and justice systems are routine threats, and where the kind of blue-collar jobs their fathers and grandfathers counted on are few.
This is the world from which the Lenny Cookes of American society emerge. At 6 feet, 6 inches tall, and just over 200 pounds, he was still just a kid when he began his short-lived rise. The pressure that came with being in his rarefied position, with his family looking to him as their sole way out of systemic oppression, must have been quite a burden to carry, and in his case, negatively influenced his decisions.
And so, instead of going to college (he was courted heavily and early by top basketball schools), he opted to strike while the iron was hot and enter the 2002 NBA draft right after high school. On draft day, Cooke watched player after player be selected — 29 players in total — without his own name ever being called.
Cooke went on to play in the minor leagues and overseas for a few years, making a pittance. He turned 30 in 2012, and footage captured of the party he threw for himself appears in the Safdies’ film. While still very much the life of the party, he’d gained quite a lot of weight, and looked decidedly unhealthy.
Unable to let go of the past, the Safdies’ film finds Cooke directionless, while his girlfriend works multiple jobs to help keep their family afloat. The brothers smartly don’t color the film with unnecessary decorations, and they maintain a fly-on-the-wall approach, keeping themselves completely out of the documentary, which is also absent of any running audio commentary.
It’s a straightforward, no-frills film that does its job, which is ultimately to tell a very tragic story of a character who just seemed unable to get out of his own way. A clever ending scene in which a present-day, much more mature Cooke addresses a 19-year-old stubborn Cooke in one of those “letters to my younger self” moments, says it all.
The life lessons of the film, a cautionary tale of squandered abilities and dreams deferred, should resonate with viewers. But Cooke’s slip-ups aside, more noteworthy are the questions it raises about the options for young Black men living in poverty, and how realities like socioeconomic status, prejudice, and stereotyping can impact talented adolescent and their future achievements.
“Lenny Cooke” is streaming on The Criterion Channel.